“I believe; help my unbelief” is my favorite phrase in scripture. It captures so much of what it means and takes to be a follower of Christ, encapsulating struggle, faith, doubt, obedience, wandering, and repentance. It is deeply theological and personal. For these reasons and more I wrote a book called Help My Unbelief: Why Doubt Is Not The Enemy of Faith which explores what real belief is and its relationship with doubt in the life of a believer. The challenges of that tension are not unique to me; They’re nearly universal among Christians no matter position, maturity, or church tradition. In the weeks leading up to the release I will share the the thoughts and experiences of several friends of mine – authors, church leaders, writers, thinkers – who honestly answered five questions about faith and doubt.
Russ Ramsey is the author of Behold the Lamb of God and Behold the King of Glory, and Struck. He is the managing editor for He Reads Truth, a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, and blogs at Russ-Ramsey.com. Stories are passion of Russ’s, especially the grand story of scripture, and he tells them well in all his writing.
In a word, permission. The statement and its context, spoken by a man who believed but had not yet seen Jesus heal his tormented son, is a cry that wells up in me. This statement finds itself on a short list of canonized prayers that give those who are hurting, confused, blind, or otherwise struggling to cry out to God without any pretense of having to prove our worth. Others in this list would be the Psalmist who asks God in prayer why he seems to be sleeping, or the King who stretches out untiring hands in the night and receives from God only silence. Knowing these statements remain in the canon of Scripture, and are not condemned, but offered to God’s people as permissible things we can say to God goes a long way in keeping me honest before him.
I love the exchange Peter and Jesus have on the shores of Galilee in John 21—the one where Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves him. Jesus keeps asking and Peter keeps giving the same answer until he breaks down and confesses, “Lord, you know everything about me. You know I love you.” I love this because it reads to me like a scene where Jesus is not trying to get Peter to see his doubt, but his faith, be it ever so small, threadbare and soiled. In a time when I would have wondered if it was all a lie, Jesus pushes Peter to see that there really is a seed of faith buried down inside him. In the midst of Peter’s greatest failure, Jesus presses him to confess that, in truth, he really does love Jesus.
It is where the knowledge of the doctrine of God, faith in what is unseen, and the humility to confess that we see through a glass darkly converge and draw from us a doxology of praise. It is, in part, academic, because God is particular—not a being we make in our image. There are things we can know about God—truths he has chosen to reveal that make up the essentials of orthodoxy. It is faith, because for as much as God has chosen to reveal himself, he has also left us with enough mystery that we will have to trust that he is who he says he is and will do what he has said he will do, even when we don’t have categories for it. And belief in God is a posture of humility—a willingness to accept certain truths that are beyond the limits of what I can comprehend along with a recognition that I am not the first to raise my own most perplexing questions and that I, with my earthbound perspective, miss a lot of what there is to know.
They belong together. If there were nothing to doubt, there would be no such thing as belief. Belief is acceptance even when doubt and questions exist. I was thinking about this the other day—how God, in his wisdom, decided not to give clarity to certain subjects the church has been left to debate since the beginning—like how much water is needed for a proper baptism. Various sides have their various positions, but no one has the argument ending proof text. I see this as a kindness from God—a shadow over an issue both dear to the church and confounding. In the end, if doubt remains, I will have to choose whether or not to exercise my belief with charity, humility, and a willingness to be wrong in the end. In this, doubt serves to temper my belief with humility.
In many ways, but in keeping with this line of questioning, I would say one way we can strengthen our belief is to deal very honestly with God about our doubts and unbelief—knowing that God may not mean to give you the clarity you see in this life. If I want to have all of my beliefs buttoned up and my doubts erased so that I can rest in the comfort of certainty, I may find that the object of my faith is not God as much as it is answers. There are no doubts lingering in the hearts of God’s people that he does not know about. Pretending they are not there does damage to an honest approach to God. Confessing they are leads me to lean in to the ways his strength, wisdom, and will can compensate for what I cannot seem to grasp.